Last week at the Meeting of the Minds summit in New York City, eighty of the world’s leading actors active in urban planning, city management and sustainable development met to discuss the future of cities. We now live in the ‘century of the city’. Since 2008 more than 51% of the world’s population live in cities. And it will only get worse. By 2050 it’s projected that 70% of us will be living in cities.

According to numerous reports by UN Habitat, The Rockefeller Foundation, the US Conference of Mayors and others, cities are contributing up to 75% of a country’s GDP. The call for national leaders to focus on cities is now more important than ever.

Typically cities bring images of decay, poverty and conflict… while the affluent live in the suburbs. This trend is being turned inside out in the developed world, as suburbs are becoming more ethnically diverse and young people are moving back into cities. In the developing world, already more than one billion people live in urban slums and this number is projected to double.

Four city ‘mega’ trends were discussed:

  1. Demographic change – more people will be living in cities and people in general are living longer.
  2. Climate Change – cities must adapt their infrastructure to survive the effects of climate change, while also taking actions to lower carbon emissions.
  3. Energy Efficiency – the growth of cities will constrain existing energy infrastructure and cities must work harder to become “energy misers” and save energy (including public buildings).
  4. Urbanization – as cities continue to grow, they become more crowded and less efficient. Quality of life and economic development will suffer. Congestion impacts economic growth.

The key to solving complex, multi-stakeholder, politically charged problems at the city level are partnerships. The decision making process is complex and requires extensive consultation processes.

Mobility (of people, goods, ideas) was seen as a key to economic development. Scenario planning is being used to prepare cities and a 2013 scenario of cities in general showed higher energy costs, more congestion and more pollution.

Cities that work to make their urban environments more sustainable and “liveable” will continue to attract companies, skilled labor and tax revenue. Cities that don’t plan will become more expensive to operate and will actually deter economic development.

So what was discussed at the event?

Energy StorageToyota seemed a bit concerned that the U.S. would be able to put 1 million electric vehicles (EV) on the road by 2015. They seem to prefer investing into hydrogen fuel cells. Apparently the DOE cut research in hydrogen fuel cell technology, even though fuel cells were advancing faster than battery technology research. But this is not stopping San Francisco from retrofitting parking meters into charging stations for future EVs.

Qualcomm is the largest chip manufacturer for mobile phones. They talked about how chips and wireless technology will provide advanced data collection on electric vehicles so we will “know how they are used” and we can validate EV efficiency. Qualcomm invests $2 billion into R&D (20% of revenues).

Qualcomm believes in the power of mobile phones for improving standards of living in the developing world, stating that a 1% increase in mobile phone access, results in a 4% increase in GDP. Thus, they are installing more than 15,000 mobile phone base stations across Sub-Saharan Africa that are off-grid… and thus require alternative sources of power.

photovoltaic.gifOne of the most interesting presentations was from an organization called Zerofootprint. They want to “re-skin” city buildings, “turning concrete from a liability into an asset”. By wrapping a building in solar panels, the building reduces energy consumption and pollution.

A group called Connected Urban in San Francisco is using maps to educate residents on a variety of sustainability issues. For example, by digitizing roofs each homeowner is told the size of their roof and the amount of energy that it could generate. They also created an EcoMap of the city together with Cisco and CH2M Hill that compares neighborhoods.

From a city perspective, urban planners and mayors agreed that sustainability was more or less ignored ten years ago. But cities are learning that sustainability means money. Sustainable cities have lower absenteeism, lower worker sick days. The city can retain talent, keeping the city competitive (for example people are leaving Hong Kong for Singapore).

The fastest growing cities over the next 10-20 years will be “secondary” cities. These are cities with populations of between 500,000-1,000,000 people. If these cities plan properly and design cities that are efficient (regarding energy, transport, water) and provide citizens with open space and quality of life, they could possibly leapfrog older, more established cities.